Overheard during finals week

I took a half-hour to sit down and read in the coffee shop during Thursday of finals week here before Christmas in my university laden hometown. So many conversations to eavesdrop on…

(A girl on a cell phone) “God-D***-It! I got a ‘D’ on my final.”

“Are you done yet?” “No I’ve got one tonight and one tomorrow.”

(From a professor) “I just listened to a room full of my students complain to me why they can’t possibly take the exam tomorrow”

“I don’t think we’re studying the right stuff. We need to talk to someone who already took it”

“Micro-finance is gifts of $500-$5000 dollars.” (Um, no)

“My boyfriend keeps telling me this is so great because you can hook it up to your phone. Uh, whatever. It doesn’t work.”

Background music: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings played too slow, as usual. (Check out the recording with Leonard Bernstein conducting instead.)

Barista: “Would you like some more wine?” “YES!”

It’s been eight years since I was in school. Sometimes I really miss it. During weeks like this? No.


Christmas music

It turns out that Loreena McKennitt recently revamped her old “winter” album from the mid-nineties and added more carols to it. This makes for a pretty good Christmas album – though if you didn’t like The Mask and Mirror, it may not be your cup of tea. A lot of the tracks have that heavy middle-eastern vibe. It also happens to contain the best freakin’ recording of Good King Wenceslas ever. I didn’t even like this song before.

Another meditation on grace from Capon

“Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”

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The imagined government

“Nation-states are imagined communities of relatively recent date, rather than eternal or inevitable realities.”

-Philip Jenkins paraphrasing Benedict Anderson

How entrenched in our minds is the idol of the government, replacing God? To answer this question, we have to try and imagine life without the modern state. Remarkably hard to do. That’s how deep a hold it has on us.

Christian immigration and loving God when you’re rich

Jenkins often speaks about the influx of Latino immigrants to the United States and how, when their birth rate and inflow is taken into account, mean a dramatic rise in the number of Christians in the United States. Now, statistically that seems to make some sense, but my own experience suggest otherwise.

I spent half my childhood in a city with a high ratio of Mexican migrant workers, accounting for nearly 50% of the population. My impression though is that they were not particularly religious but had rather dove head-first into American secular materialism. They’re all supposed to be Catholic, but if that’s the case than few of them must have ever gone to church. The Catholic congregations remained relatively small. There were no Latino churches bursting at the seams, and their should have been if even a forth of the immigrants in a 10-mile radius attended any sort of worship service. I knew of a handful of Spanish-speaking Pentecostal churches in town, but they were small. I couldn’t observe any evidence that these southern immigrants were any less secular than anyone else.

Was this just my experience? Does anyone out there live in, say, Arizona among a huge community of faithful Latinos? I’m assuming they are out there, I just haven’t ever seen ’em where they (should?) be.

That’s the main problem I see with Jenkin’s projections throughout his book (The Next Christendom). He does not take seriously enough the power of wealth to squash faith. Rich Muslim countries lose their religious depth when they are covered in oil. Christian and Muslim migrants to Europe or the U.S. find they are more excited about cars and TVs than piety. In the southern strongholds where everyone is still poor, or at least everyone knows a lot of poor people, the effect from the secular outside is limited. But when you transplant someone to L.A. or London, they get distracted. Sometimes permanently so. Ultimately, for this (and some other reasons) I am not as optimistic about Jenkin’s projections of Christianity taking over much of the world. They need to have lots of kids (which they do) AND train them up well (easier said then done). Maybe they can. This could still be a LOT better though, across the board. We probably have a thousand things to learn form the Africans, but they could maybe learn a few things from us. How do you love God after you’re rich? Most of them haven’t had to answer that question – yet.

A few more misc notes on The Next Christendom

I really liked this anecdote about a foreign visitor being upset by the totem poles set up in a public park in the pacific northwest.

Also illustrating the cultural gulf that separates Northern and Southern churches is Moses Tay, formerly the Anglican archbishop of Southeast Asia, whose see was based in Singapore. Visiting the Canadian city of Vancouver, Archbishop Tay found himself in Stanley Park, where he encountered the totem poles that represent and important symbol of the city. He was deeply troubles. The archbishop concluded that as artifacts of an alien religion, these were idols possessed by evil spirits, and they required handling by prayer and exorcism. This behavior horrified the local Anglican church, which was committed to building good relationships with local native communities, and which regarded exorcism as absurd superstition. (Moreover, totem poles themselves should more properly be seen as symbols of status and power, rather than specifically religious objects.) Considering his own standards, though, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy with the archbishop. Considering the long span of Christian writings on exorcism and possession, he could summon many literary witnesses to support his position, far more than the Canadian church could produce in favor of tolerant multiculturalism.

-Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p.151

I’m pretty familiar with this sort of thing. There was one about a half hour from my house. I barely notice them, but seriously, we can’t blame him if he does. We’ve swallowed a lot of nonsense here in the west. Why should we assume it’s the foreigners who don’t get it?

If Northerners worry that Southern churches have compromised with traditional paganism, then Southerners accuse Americans and Europeans of selling out Christianity to neo-paganism, in the form of humanistic secular liberalism.


Indeed. They’re probably both right. I’ve had so much modernism/postmodernism pumped into me, it’s still hard to sort out. Every day.

Switching gears…

The secular western powers REALLY don’t get religion. They try to categorize it and such, but they might as well be on another planet. Relations with evangelicals in the U.S. and with Muslims abroad provides mounds of examples. Long term, this is really bad for global relations. Hmmmm.

Modern Western media generally do an awful job of reporting on religious realities, even within their own societies. Despite its immense popularity in North America, evangelical and fundamentalist religion often tends to be dismissed as merely a kind of reactionary ignorance. It would be singularly dangerous if such uncomprehending attitudes were applied on a global scale and aggravated by racial stereotyping. As Christianity comes to be sees as, in effect, jungle religion, the faith of one-third of the human race would increasingly be seen as alien and dangerous, even a pressing social problem. The North, in turn, would define itself against this unfortunate presence: the North would be secular, rational, and tolerant, the South primitive and fundamentalist. The North would define itself against Christianity.


After explaining how huge parts of the world will be largely Christian or Muslim:

It is conceivable that within a few decades, the two faiths will have agreed on amicable terms of coexistence, but looking at matters as they stand today, that happy consummation seems unlikely. Issues of theocracy and religious law, toleration and minority rights, conversion and apostasy, should be among the most divisive in domestic and international politics for decades to come. it is quite possible to imagine a future Christendom not too different from the old, defined less by any ideological harmony than by its unity against a common outside threat. We must hope that the new Res Publica Christiana does not confront an equally militant Muslim world, Dar al-Islam, or else we really will have gone full circle back to the worst features of the thirteenth century.


Jenkin’s book is very positive and does a good job of avoiding politics. He does very little preaching of doom and gloom. Nevertheless, he does mix in a little bit of it, as seen above. It’s hard not too. I wish I knew more Muslims. I only knew a couple in college and they were very quiet about it. While in Ethiopia, I talked several times to the cook at our guest house. She was a convert to Christianity from Islam. Her parents lived in the north of the country. She was very happy to make the change. She was also in demand as the only one in the house who could understand the Arabic soap operas on TV.

On immigration from the south:

We used to have a Belgian Congo, but what about a Congolese Belgium?

Again, a good question to ask if you are trying to expand your view of history. A good exercise!

Back in 1920, Hilaire Belloc not only proclaimed that “Europe is the Faith” but made his boast specifically Catholic: “The Church is Europe; and Europe is The Church.” If this was ever true, it has not been so for a good many years. Euro-American Catholics ceased to enjoy majority status a generation ago, and a bulk of the world’s Catholics now live in the global South.


Belloc was an interesting guy, but every time I see that quote from him I have to shake my head. My catholic friends defend him saying “that’s not what he really meant”. Whatever. I’ll just let it stand. I’m OK with him being smart and clever and yet still myopic in his European-ness. We all are about something.

37% of all Catholic baptisms in Africa today are of adults. These are people making a deliberate decision to convert from some other faith. What could be more unheard of in the north/west?!
(Paraphrase from p.227)

That’s pretty cool. And different.

Finally, I really liked this passing comment on the book of Revelation and why it is popular in Africa and Latin America, especially among rural dwellers:

Making the biblical text sound even more relevant to modern Third World Christians, the evils described in Revelation are distinctively urban. Then as now, evil sets up its throne in cities. Brazilian scholar Gilberto da Silva Gorgulho remarks that “The Books of Revelation is the favorite book of our popular communities. Here they find the encouragement they need in their struggle and a criterion for the interpretation of official persecution in our society…The meaning of the church in history is rooted in the witness of the gospel before the state imperialism that destroys the people’s life, looming as an idol and caricature of the Holy Trinity.” To a Christian living in a Third World dictatorship, the image of the government as Antichrist is not a bizarre religious fantasy but a convincing piece of political analysis.


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Nuking Christians

Christians often lament the fact that Japan has almost no believers – less than 1% in fact. Except Japan used to have more Christians, as recent as 70 years ago. What happened? The bulk of them lived in Nagasaki. We killed them off with an atomic bomb. Oops. Strike one for American missions.

On hating Spanish, and then not

I’ve always hated Spanish. Really. I loathed the three years of Spanish that I had to take growing up for a while in public school; not because the teacher was bad (in fact, she was quite good), but because I just had zero interest in it. The only Spanish I ever heard was spoken by poor uneducated migrant workers. A few that I knew were members of the Crips gang, which was prominent in the next town over. I didn’t like the little bit of Latin music I had heard on the radio. I didn’t like how it had so many syllables. I thought it was stupid. I was glad when I didn’t have to study it any more. I forgot most of it.

Now, fifteen years later, I find myself today standing in the kitchen, reading the Spanish translation of an instruction manual and realizing that it’s actually pretty cool. I’m surprised at how much of it makes sense or how much of it I remember. I find the nuance in meaning from the different vocabulary to be a worthwhile mystery to solve. I find myself thinking it would be fun to learn. What changed? And why did I hate it so much the first time?

A few thoughts:

1. My only exposure, both in real life and in class was to spoken, conversational, colloquial Mexican Spanish. That was not (and still is not) interesting. But the world, it turns out, is a huge place and I only knew one little corner. There are all manner of countries and cultures that speak it. A multitude of religious and scholarly works are there too. Now we’re talkin’.

2. It turns out I do much better if I can see what’s going on. I think if I had been taught to read Spanish instead of being forced to conjugate verbs out loud in little role-playing scenarios, I might have taken in a lot more. I’m not saying other people would have, but I think *I* would have.

3. I may not have found Mexico particularly intriguing, but Spain, it turns out has a rich and fascinating history. As I read more history of Europe, the Church, and Latin America, I keep bumping into Spanish in new contexts.

4. By chance, four different books I’ve read in the past couple years have turned out to be English translations from Spanish authors. What are the odds of that? This includes The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Club Dumas and The Nautical Chart by Arturo Perez-Reverte, and even Raising Abel, a theology book by the very English Oxford-educated James Alison, who, nevertheless, wrote the book in Spanish while living in Chile.

5. At a brief workshop I attended last year given by the Boston Camerata, singer Anne Azema presented a wonderful piece of music in an old dialect of southern Spain. Very moving.

6. I remember sitting in a cafe a couple years ago and listening to two people talk in a beautiful-sounding tongue. It took me a while to realize it was, in fact, Spanish. How different it sounded from the accent of my childhood.

7. The difficulty of trying to learn some Amharic has made Spanish seem quite easy by comparison!